Populist Politics Meet Popular Culture
"If Vice President Cheney were here, he'd tell you all to go fuck yourself!"
To a rousing cheer, Al Franken nailed the mood at MoveOn.org's latest New York function, a star-studded gala at Hammerstein Ballroom celebrating its new celebrity extraordinaire ad campaign, titled "10 Weeks: Don't Get Mad, Get Even." By launching ads either starring, directed or written by Hollywood celebrities, MoveOn strives to move beyond the Washington consultant-driven ad model to reach a broader audience. As they watched their favorite stars appear on camera and on stage, the sold-out crowd of 2,000 never knew that hating Bush could be so fun.
Folk rocker Natalie Merchant performed a stirring rendition of the coal-miner protest classic "Which Side Are You On?" Electro-nerd Moby covered Buffalo Springfield's antiwar favorite "For What It's Worth." Former Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell played his classic, "Idiots Rule." Hip-hop group The Roots literally rocked the vote, substituting the phrase "I'll Be Anti-Bush for Life," into the chorus of their hit single. "Know why MoveOn is so fantastic?" asked former presidential hopeful Howard Dean. "Because they tell the truth."
Beforehand, a vulturous press corps swarmed the stars and pseudo-celebs (Phil Donahue, Illeana Douglas) in the third-floor VIP section, complete with a roped-off photographer's section and open bar. The A-list crowd and MoveOn's ever-magnifying presence drew Entertainment Tonight, People, Rolling Stone, VH1 and US Weekly. The US Weekly reporter queried Illeana Douglas as to what question she would like to ask President Bush. When she struggled to reply, US asked the tough follow-up: "Who's the sexiest athlete at the Athens Olympics?" Popular culture still trumps populist politics.
More important, a few of the fifteen ads debuting were genuinely powerful and could legitimately connect with coveted swing voters and important demographic blocs. The first ad comes courtesy of hip-hop director Benny Boom. To a pulsing beat, a group of determined, rapidly multiplying African-American kids in Brooklyn march toward a polling station. When a few dozen roll up, an officer dismissively replies, "Whoa, whoa, what's the problem?" "There ain't no problem," the lead teenager responds confidently. "We're here to vote." MoveOn plans to air the ad in largely African-American communities, accompanied by a petition calling on the Bush Administration to denounce recent voter-suppression tactics in Michigan and Florida.
Another crowd-pleaser, "Mistake," by veteran liberal director Rob Reiner, takes up the question posed to Bush at his April 13, 2004, press conference on Iraq: "After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be?" As Bush clumsily dances around the most basic of questions, figures appear on the screen: "3.8 million Americans lost health insurance; 1.4 million Americans lost their jobs; In Iraq, over 600 Americans dead or wounded." "Four years ago, a mistake was made," says Reiner. "On November 2, we can correct that." Another huge ovation.
Model Rebecca Romijn stars in the sizzling "Stranded Republicans" spot. She picks up a guy whose car has broken down on the side of the road. "You a Republican?" she asks, before letting him in. "It must be hard not having a candidate for President." "What do you mean?" he asks. "Well, Republicans would never create the largest deficit on history," she replies, rattling off a list of unconservative failures of the right-wing Administration. Before dropping him off, Romijn extends an olive branch. "Don't worry, you're not alone," she says, offering a different sticker: Another Republican Voting for Kerry. "You got another?" he asks.
Finally, the creators of "Child's Pay," the ad CBS refused to run during the Super Bowl, are back with another moving spot, titled "The Air We Breathe." Shot in shades of gray and set to a hypnotic Moby song, it shows pregnant women, Little League baseball players, track and field stars, and babies smoking computer-generated cigarettes. "While George Bush deliberately dismantles our Clean Air Act, many Americans are smoking an equivalent of a pack a day," the caption reads, "Just from breathing the air."
The new MoveOn spots touch all the issues: air pollution, budget deficits, lost jobs, voter disenfranchisement, skyrocketing healthcare costs, war profiteering, civil liberties and more. "MoveOn ads tap into Karl Rove's biggest fear," Al Franken joked. "Bush's record."